I like talking about ideas. Not just my own, but ideas in general. Specifically, I like talking with someone and seeing how their or my own ideas evolve over time. I like learning why some people abandon some ideas or adapt old ideas to fit new ways of thinking. But, how can we consider new ideas in a healthy way?
For me in particular, will I evolve and grow out of my current ideas? Probably. In fact, I expect to. I think it would be incredibly sad if I did not change my mind on at least a few ideas as I grew and learned more and experienced more of life. When I do, I will probably remove those ideas I have outgrown from this site, or any site I posted them, but I won’t be ashamed of thinking them or sharing them in the first place. It is part of my growth. I’m not foolish enough to believe that any idea I have is original, or even unique. But its particular application to my life is. And my unique perspective on that idea might help someone else on their journey.
I find that putting my ideas into a more “concrete” form that can be shared with others forces that idea to form more clearly in my mind, allowing it to be analyzed, critiqued, and pondered over more meaningfully.
That being said, my life has changed a lot over the last couple years. I’ve needed to strengthen some ideas, find new ones to make sense of what I was going through, and abandon others altogether.
Many nights I have stayed awake until dawn wishing and/or praying I could get some kind of “answer” or direction for my life. It was not fun, and sometimes I almost begged that I could find some kind of blissful, easy ignorance which would be much easier than whatever journey I found myself on at the time.
But, for whatever reason, I persist in the work of exploring my own ideas, outgrowing my comfortable shell and stepping into uncomfortable new truths.
In order to really do this with any amount of honesty, I needed to filter out a lot of the different voices that were influencing me either consciously or unconsciously. This is something we all know and have learned, in some way, to deal with. To speak is to try to influence the outside world in some way, and when our world is full of voices. How much of our day is truly the result of actions we decided to take for ourselves, and how much was the result of us listening to the loudest voices in our lives?
I found the longer I thought about this question, the less certain I became that any of my decisions were truly my own. I had to be honest with myself and recognize which voices were influencing me toward peace, and which were influencing me toward anything else. Those in the latter group I knew I had to learn to ignore. This was (and continues to be) a painful and difficult process.
However, during that process, I learned three very important principles that I use as guides to help me as I learn and grow.
Principle 1: My ideas are not me
I used to fall into the trap of tying my identity as a person with my ideas. I would get offended when someone criticized hobbies I liked, economic or political ideas I supported, or anything else that I had absorbed into my person-hood. Even if it was something as simple as a difference of taste, I might take that opinion personally as a criticism of my ability to enjoy things properly.
I learned that I needed to separate my identity as a person from the ideas that I currently believe in.
When I separated my Self from my ideas, I abandoned some and chose to keep others. For those that I abandoned, I experienced the most interesting phenomenon. (At least, it was interesting for me).
At first, I found myself absolutely desperate for another idea, an alternative, to fill the void. Sometimes it was the simple novelty of a new idea that would capture my attention for months.
The real danger in some of my ideas, I learned, was how inseparably they had become intertwined with each other.
When I abandoned my childhood belief in American exceptionalism, it didn’t leave without doing damage to my belief in capitalism, which didn’t leave without damaging my belief in god and religion.
When I abandoned my selfish belief in the role of men in society, I couldn’t do so without damaging my belief in Christian conservatism, which I couldn’t abandon without taking a bulldozer to the foundation of my belief in my Self.
Eventually, I came to the realization that not every idea needed a replacement. I didn’t need an answer for everything, or a guide for every action and decision. So, instead, I turned my attention inward. I knew I couldn’t find a philosophy or idea that satisfied all my questions, but I also couldn’t continue my life in doubt, blown around by every cool idea that came my way. I knew I had to find an anchor within myself to root me to who I am. I learned meditation, breath-work, and mantra. I found healing. I found peace.
Once I found peace within myself. I no longer needed to justify my life, my existence, my being with someone else’s ideas. I no longer felt like I needed to find a “purpose” to my life, a reason to exist. I was able to listen to and accept and reject ideas not on their ability to bring me wealth, comfort, or salvation, but on their ability to create a more beautiful and loving world.
Because I have kids, I often think about the world I’m going to leave behind for them to inherit. Sometimes those thoughts include what I want to put on my tombstone. What profound quote do I want them to read each time they (hopefully) visit me? As I think about it, I realize everything I could have written on my stone is silly.
My name? My kids already know my name, they don’t need a reminder.
My profession? Was my life so pointless that I can boil my whole existence down to my job?
Quotes, pictures, dates, or something else? If I didn’t do the work during my life to help my children be loving, helpful, and happy people, then no quote on my headstone will do it when I’m gone.
My tombstone isn’t for me. Any tombstone or crypt or monument to my life is vanity. It’s pride. Now, I sometimes meditate on the thought that a thousand years from now, the spot I was buried will be unknown, forgotten, and (hopefully) overgrown with all kinds of plants.
I hope my kids bury me with an oak sampling in my hands so I can actually contribute something to their lives when I’m gone.
Principle 2: Good ideas are not always comfortable ideas
I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to think of your answer during the rest of this section. I will share my personal answer at the end, and we can compare notes.
In North America, one of the top causes of divorce is financial issues. What is your suggestion to help remedy this problem?
But before that, here is another question: how do we decide when an idea is a “good” idea? When I consider all the “good” ideas I have heard in the past, they all had a few things in common: they either gave the quickest, easiest path from point A to point B, or they provide the biggest payoff for an investment.
For example. If you’re lost, a “good” idea would be to ask someone for directions, because it would be quicker and easier than wandering around trying to find your way, or pulling out a map and compass.
I learned, however, that not every idea I had that was quick or easy was necessarily for my good. I learned that by including my comfort, or personal preferences on the pro/con list of ideas, I was preemptively disqualifying some of the best ideas.
At no point was this more obvious than on my 30th birthday.
In short, I had a very severe mental breakdown. We were living in Chicago at the time, and at 2:00 in the morning I got up from my bed and wandered down the street to the beach where I cried for a few hours. The idea that I should have “made” it by now, that I was struggling to provide for my family, that I was failing in the rat race, that I would never be able to catch up to my peers, crushed me at such a fundamental level I didn’t know what else to do. I was let go from my job.
I tried to continue as before. I got a new job in Phoenix and tried to resume climbing the ladder of success. It was comfortable being able to pay my bills, to buy all the things we needed without checking the bank account every day. But I knew something was wrong with me, or the world.
My breakdown shook me out of my life of comfort. It showed me that if I really wanted to live a fulfilling life, I couldn’t just follow every good idea that came my way. I realized I had only lived my life at the whims of those around me: parents, spiritual leaders, bosses, etc. Their “good” ideas controlled my life, and I couldn’t find any single decision I had ever made that was truly MY decision. So, I went an uncomfortable idea and chose to truly understand who I am, and where I want to go.
It has been hard. Resisting the influences of well-intentioned people is difficult. But I refuse to believe that life is a competition. That it’s just a list of boxes I’m supposed to check before I die.
Life doesn’t have a “tutorial” stage, where we learn everything we need then enter adulthood to see who can get the highest score. Learning and growing and adapting is part of the whole purpose of life. To think we have learned everything we need to know by adulthood, to think we’ve ever arrived at the “final” or “ultimate truth” or “perfect idea” is arrogant and foolish. It is pride of the highest degree. But mostly, it is a sure sign of someone who is afraid. Someone who is afraid of life, afraid to leave their comfort zone.
Now, anytime I feel like I have “made it”, I know I have work to do.
To be clear: I don’t seek out difficult or uncomfortable ideas simply because they are uncomfortable. I’m not some self-flagellating monk, after all. But by accepting that sometimes the best ideas might be difficult, or uncomfortable, I am able to be more honest about the direction of my life.
Now, to the answer to the question about the solution to one of the top causes of divorce in North America. What was yours?
I’ve actually heard this statistic many times. In church, from therapists, counselors, or from people who struggled with it themselves. Usually the answers were some variation of the following:
Learn to budget better.
That’s it. Keep doing what you’re doing. Communicate better. Keep trying to climb the ladder in a system designed to keep you working more for less. Keep working for companies that demean you and mistreat you. Keep sacrificing the best years of your life to afford a house bigger than the ones your high-school friends have. Work until you’re sixty and your kids barely recognize you and stick you in a retirement home.
The poison of greed is everywhere in our society, so naturally it will affect our most intimate relationships. And we think the solution is to keep drinking that Kool-Aid, but this time with a little umbrella in it. It might save your marriage, sure, but I wouldn’t be happy with a marriage that was simply surviving. I would want one that is thriving.
I’ve never once heard the suggestion “Hey, maybe you’re too obsessed with your career path.” (Except in church where it’s usually said to women who are pursuing a career instead of staying home). Or “Your worldview is so fundamentally tied up with the value of money, that you only see your life and relationships in terms of dollar bills.” Or, “You were raised to view your worth as a human being through the lense of monetary value. You need to learn that money is not a measure of success, worth, or moral superiority.”
The true solution, I believe, to financial issues within any relationship isn’t an adjustment with the other person, it is an adjustment within ourselves to our relationship with money.
This is true with any relationship. We often want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want to stay obsessed with money and power while keeping our intimate relationships that are harmed by those obsessions.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Aaron wants us all to be monks, living in non-attachment, eating nothing but dates on the mountaintops.” And I couldn’t disagree more.
Simply removing the influence of these temptations doesn’t make you a good person.
It’s easy to live a life when there are no influences pulling on you, what’s hard is renouncing your desire on those influences while they surround you. The body will yearn, the heart will ache, but by removing the “I” from that desire, you live more fully the life you are meant to live, and those yearnings will decrease in strength.
If we truly want to experience a fullness of life, of love, we need to embrace the uncomfortable ideas. And the most uncomfortable ideas force us to change ourselves, to work on our inner Self, instead of trying to change everyone else, or make the world conform to our worldview.
Principle 3: Ideas aren’t free
We are human. We have wants and desires. We have unconscious motivations that direct our every thought and action.
There’s a reason we have movies and books about the most enlightened among us who have been able to overcome those wants and desires: hardly anybody can do it because it’s hard to do.
No matter what we do, no matter how noble the cause or self-less the action, we will always have an attachment to some goal or result that we want. We have some kind of motivation for that action. This is natural, and it’s extremely difficult to overcome.
Some of the most well-known spiritual and philosophical leaders around the world have taught us that even the pursuit of non-attachment is a form of attachment. That many people seek non-attachment as a goal, as a skill to help them be successful, or to validate their journey.
I say this not because I want us to always questions the charitable acts of others, or to criticize any good deed. If someone is actually making the world a better place, their inner motivations for doing so are none of my business. I say this because I, in my journey, have learned that any environment in which I learn and ponder new ideas is not free from the influences of the outside world. Every idea (this post included) will always carry with it the intentions and tides of the desires of other people.
I cannot analyze a new idea in a vacuum.
But that doesn’t mean I should stop trying altogether. Instead, when I consider ideas about economics, morality, or spirituality, when I know the fabric from which that idea is cut, I can make a more educated decision about that idea.
Here’s a long-winded anecdote to help me illustrate this point.
First, my position: I believe the accumulation of wealth is morally wrong. I believe hoarding money and wealth while people suffer and starve around us is morally wrong. I believe giving into our greed and pride at the expense of other people is evil.
I believe owning multiple homes is morally wrong. I believe owning a cabin that sits empty most of the year so we can enjoy a few weekends skiing in the winter while other people are homeless is morally wrong. Heaven forbid we own more than two while there are people in our own country freezing to death or dying from heatstroke.
I believe there is no justification for this behavior. No spiritual, scriptural, moral, philosophical, or economic model that can make this behavior OK. Anything that sounds like it does is twisting facts and is unhealthy spiritually and morally. It’s inhuman and inhumane.
I also don’t believe that there is a fine line where having less than that amount is good, and having more than that is wrong.
I think about it this way. Consider our position on the sacredness of the dead. Many of us, I would assume, believe the human body is sacred, and this sacredness does not end when the spirit leaves the body. We treat the deceased with all the reverence a sacred object deserves. And yet we dig up mummies, we desecrate their sacred resting places and peel them apart like Christmas presents to display in museums. We dig up preserved bodies, clearly laid to rest with respect and love, and parade them around the world.
Clearly there is a line somewhere at which we are comfortable desecrating our dead. Where is it?
Are you comfortable digging up your parents? Grandparents? Great-grandparents? How far back can we go before you are comfortable digging up your relatives?
It seems like it’s more of a gradient. We know it’s wrong to do. We can’t say that the love and respect ancient people felt is any less important than our own. But at some point, we are able to justify this moral crime by weighing their love and respect against our own needs and desires.
The same is true of money.
Money isn’t “the root of all evil” because it might tempt us to do bad things with it. It’s the root of all evil because it, of itself, is an evil invention of power and manipulation. It has its roots in greed, and just as an evil tree cannot produce good fruit, money is the fruit of greedy, power-hungry people.
Even Jesus taught this principle:
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23-25 New Oxford Annotated Bible)
So why, then, have we reserved the moral high-ground for the rich and wealthy?
Like a blind man cannot describe a sunset to you, a rich man cannot guide you in morality or spirituality. The mere act of possessing such wealth prevents them from acting or thinking in a moral way. It’s impossible. The hoarding wealth precludes them from having any connection to Spirit or humanity.
You wouldn’t go to a fisherman for advice on mining, nor a priest for investment tips. Why do we go to billionaires for advice on how to run our society? The only insight they would have is how to run a society that would more directly benefit them financially. Not on the advancement of humanity as a whole, and definitely not on how to connect with God or with any higher, divine Self.
As it says in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” We cannot set our sights on the accumulation of wealth and consider ourselves spiritually healthy people. It can’t be done. It’s impossible.
We have outsourced our social and moral compasses to the rich and wealthy because we have justified our greed by attaching moral value to money.
I’ve been told I shouldn’t take financial advice from someone in a worse financial position than me. Now, I apply that rule to all spiritual and moral advice I get.
If the sign of a spiritual and morally healthy person is charity, love, patience, humility, kindness, and peace, why would I ever take advice on how to live my life from someone who is not patient, who is not charitable, who isn’t kind, whose home is not peaceful?
Ideas are not shared freely. Be careful you are not buying into ideas that demean you to empower or enrich others. Be aware of the motivations behind ideas that control your life.
“Dying to your own attachments is a beautiful death. Because this death releases you into real life. You have to die as a seed to live as a tree.”
By now, you might have concluded that Aaron is lost trying to find himself (from point 1), living a very uncomfortable life (from point 2), who hates rich people and doesn’t trust anyone (from point 3).
I can’t disagree with you.
I have found peace after I separated myself from ideas. When I stopped trying to “identify” myself and instead just enjoyed life, each experience has become richer, deeper, and more meaningful.
I do live an uncomfortable life, because I try to limit the suffering my comfort inflicts on others. I know that sometimes it is uncomfortable to admit I am lost, or that I am confused, but I would rather be uncomfortable knowing that I am doing my best to grow and improve, than be comfortable and not grow at all.
I do trust people. I trust that they are acting rationally with all the information and tools they have available. But that trust does not extend to accepting or tolerating their unhealthy influences on my life. I will resist their influence when I can, and remove myself from it entirely if resisting will impact my family, or the world negatively. I consider the source of every idea, whether I accept it or not.
Throughout this piece, I have used the word “abandoned” liberally. I couldn’t decide on a better word and didn’t want to waste time on finding an alternative. But even for the ideas I abandoned and to which I will never return, I express my gratitude and thankfulness. Those ideas were stepping stones to where I am today. They helped me grow and improve. I never want to reach a point in my life where I don’t look back on my past and cringe at least a little.
I am thankful for those ideas, I am thankful for my journey. I am thankful for you. I am thankful for your journey.
Know that I love you, and I wish you all the best in your growing.